Nine years ago I attended a dinner that shifted my perception of how good wines could be. Over a long evening at Medlar in London, we drank several wines that in isolation could have been my greatest ever, and ones that I would gladly have said were perfect - or 100 point - wines. The problem with drinking so many outstanding wines with their qualitative peers is that it immediately becomes a ranking game, and someone has to come out on top. On the night, that was easy for me; a bottle of Pétrus 1959 served blind absolutely blew me away. I had never tasted anything like it and no one in the room was close to considering it a then 55-year-old wine.
The greatness of 2009 Bordeaux has been written about at length. From Robert Parker's huge barrel and bottle scores, to praise from critic and merchant alike since the first tastings from barrel in 2010. The vintage has widely, and appropriately, been judged as one of the region's greats. Now, with over a decade in bottle and several other recent contenders for "Vintage of the Century", just how good are the top wines in this celebrated, warm year?
The annual “Ten Years On” blind tasting took place in February this year, three weeks after the magnificent 2019 Southwold tasting. The two tastings could not have been more different, and we arguably went from the very best of Bordeaux to the worst.
The Southwold Group has tasted the top wines of Bordeaux from the latest physically available vintage together for over 40 years. This used to take place – as the group’s name suggests – in Southwold in Suffolk, but it has now moved to Farr Vintners where we taste in a purpose-built modern tasting room. This is now my seventh Southwold Group tasting, with 2019 my tenth vintage tasted En Primeur (albeit in strange circumstances due to COVID restrictions).
The following article was originally published on JancisRobinson.com.
Virginie and Bertrand Waris own seven hectares of vineyards across Champagne, making small production wines from a majority Pinot Noir from Sézannais, Epernay and Aube. As the fourth generation of the family, their practices are well established in making grower Champagne. Based in Avize, the property is a stone's throw from both Agrapart and Selosse, the celebrity growers in the village. Bertrand - who studied viticulture - has a clear passion for vineyard work and clarity of expression in the wines, but the Waris name remains relatively under the radar, the wines therefore offering good value for money. Waris have made Farr Vintners' "Ville de la Reine" label for fifteen years, so it was about time for me to visit the property and get a greater understanding of the wines and the philosophy behind them.
New Zealand has an astonishing presence and reputation within the wine world compared to the volume of wine it produces. Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is one of the strongest regional brands of the New World, and the country – particularly Central Otago – is synonymous with Pinot Noir. There are roughly 5,500 hectares of Pinot Noir planted in New Zealand (compared to over 20,000 hectares of Sauvignon Blanc), with a large proportion intended for sparkling wine. To compare, the hectares-under-vine are 10,000 in Burgundy, 12,500 in Oregon, and nearly 20,000 in California. Despite the relatively small plantings of Pinot Noir, New Zealand is considered one of the most important areas for the variety. That is, in part, because New Zealand’s wine production has always looked to high quality and premium prices. The climate, too, plays a significant role in the potential here. Though the region is still in relative infancy compared to the Old World, vines are now starting to mature, reaching deep into soils and producing world-class wines that can stand up to Pinot produced anywhere in the world – including Burgundy itself.
A little over a decade ago, Prince Robert of Luxembourg and the Dillon Estates bought Tertre Daugay - a Saint Emilion property with prime vineyards - and renamed it Quintus (as the fifth estate owned by Domaine Clarence Dillon). The estate has grown over time to include the vines from L'Arrosée in 2013 and, more recently, Grand Pontet. The cellars, vineyards and team have been overhauled, bringing expertise, experience and dilligence to the property in an effort to make Quintus one of the great wines of the right bank.
You have to see Château Grillet to truly appreciate it. An amphitheatre of terraced vines is carved into the perilously steep slopes overlooking the Rhône river. The small property sits below the majority of the vineyard, with lower terraces spreading right and left, and some new plantings curling away upriver towards Lyon.
Château Troplong Mondot has produced one of the more divisive wines in Bordeaux over the last quarter of a century. The full-blooded, ripe, inky, high-alcohol and fully-extracted style drew three-digit scores from many critics and scorn from others. With a traditionally British palate, I have found these wines impressive to taste in some vintages, though never something I would drink, or buy, myself; a tasting pour has always been more than enough. There has, however, been a seismic change since 2017, when Aymeric de Gironde was brought in to manage the estate. The results are already impressive, with changes in all aspects promising even more to come.
Nyetimber's Tillington Vineyard produces arguably the greatest wine in England; we have been supporters, and fans, of the wine since the first vintage was cautiously released nearly a decade ago. With the release of the 2014 vintage imminent, Brad Greatrix (who makes the wines alongside his wife Cherie Spriggs) came to Farr Vintners for the first vertical tasting outside the property of the first four vintages of this wine: 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014.
One of the joys in being part of both the Southwold and Ten Years On tasting groups is the middle night dinner, where members bring special bottles from their own cellars based on a specific theme. This year, the 2012 Ten Years On tasting gave us a great excuse to look at the legendary 1982 vintage forty years on. This was an exciting prospect, particularly for me, as I have had much less exposure to these wines than the more senior members of the group. It is well known that 1982 launched Robert Parker’s career when he hailed the ripe, seductive style as a great vintage. Of course, he was not alone in that view, though there were dissenting voices concerned with the ripeness of fruit and tannin paired with low(er) acidities that could affect the longevity of the vintage.
The annual “Ten Years On” blind tasting returned to its normal schedule after recent delays due to the pandemic. This year we looked at the 2012s, with 2018 Southwold fresh in our minds.
Grower Champagne is now firmly established as a source of great, individual wines that offer something different to the grandes marques that have dominated sales and production in the region for so long. The concept of owning, farming and then making wine is not a stretch in most regions (and, indeed, many of the larger houses in Champagne own at least some vineyards from which they make wine), but the focus on quality of fruit and effort in the vineyard to produce high quality sparkling wine is the essence of these wines. In a recent visit to Egly-Ouriet, it was possible to see just how much work Francis Egly has put into every aspect of his wines, resulting in a recent 100-point score for his magnificent 2008 Millésime. I drank this wine recently in Spain, and it is an absolutely stunning offering, well worth its perfect score with ample richness to match the hallmark ’08 acidic tension. A profound champagne worthy of patience in the cellar.
The Southwold Group has tasted the top wines of Bordeaux from the latest physically available vintage together for over 40 years. This used to take place – as the group’s name suggests – in Southwold in Suffolk, but it has now moved to Farr Vintners where we taste in a purpose-built modern tasting room. As a fairly recent member 2018 is my sixth Southwold, and the ninth vintage that I tasted en primeur.
The following blog was written before the sudden passing of Eloi Dürrbach in November but has been edited following the sad news. Eloi's work and vision made Trevallon one of the great and best-known wines of France, which will rightly continue under his family's stewardship.
William Kelley has achieved a lot in his short career in wine. In 2015, time spent producing wine in California turned to a permanent writing role at Decanter (alongside pieces written for Noble Rot and The Robb Report). By 2018 he was snapped up by The Wine Advocate to focus on Burgundy and Champagne, as well as the California coast. Multiple writing awards and nominations have followed, and there are two embryonic wines being made in Burgundy.
The dinner between the Southwold tasting days is always a highlight of the week, and often the year. After nine hours of tasting young - often highly tannic - red Bordeaux, you might think the last thing needed would be more wine. But, perhaps after a cleansing beer, these dinners can re-invigorate the palate and mind. Every year there is a theme; be it region, vintage, variety or other. This year, the wines took on the concept of the Judgement of Paris tasting, in honour of the late Steven Spurrier. Southwold 2017 is the first vintage without Steven since his passing earlier this year. What better way to toast to his memory than with a comparative tasting of American and French wines, much as he did to send shockwaves through the industry in 1976.
Unlike many in the wine world, the Brajkovich family are not known for over-hyping the quality of their wines at Kumeu River. Despite consistently high praise in critical review for Chardonnays that are – in our opinion – world class, the prices and people behind the wines have remained remarkably modest. And so, when Michael Brajkovich told us that 2020 might be the best vintage he has ever made, we took it very seriously. Could the new vintage possibly top the unquestionably great 2019s?
The 2011 Bordeaux En Primeur campaign was destined to struggle. It followed two great vintages in 2009 and 2010 – meaning that most Bordeaux lovers were already over-stocked with superb wines. On top of this, the market was in the middle of a correction from peaks the previous summer, and many châteaux simply did not reduce their prices close to the required level in order to entice buyers for the new vintage. Furthermore, the wines were difficult to taste En Primeur, presenting a tannic and closed profile. As a result, those with too much wine were offered an expensive vintage with mediocre reviews from critics and merchants alike. 2011s were quickly forgotten in favour of the charming, forward and lower-priced 2012s. But now, things are changing.
Jean-Marie Guffens needs little introduction to our customers. The maverick Belgian vigneron has produced outstanding, great value wines for decades through his Domaine Guffens-Heynen and négociant Maison Verget. These wines are now almost exclusively from the Maconnais, from old vines and great sites overlooked by those with tunnel vision for the Côte d’Or. Please see our in-depth profile on Jean-Marie from the definitive vertical of his wines, hosted by Farr Vintners.
Once every so often a tasting redefines the standard by which all future tastings will be judged. This can be due to the organisation, collation of scores or notes, quality of the wines or general tasting atmosphere amongst other things. At a recent vertical of Château Latour, held in the depths of their chai, this was the case in so many ways. We were there to celebrate Stephen Browett’s 60th Birthday, and the Château had kindly arranged for us to taste 20 consecutive vintages blind in magnum under the stewardship of Frédéric Engerer and Jean Garandeau. We would taste the most recent vintages – 1999 to 2018 inclusive – all of which were made since Engerer became the CEO of the estate, and more recently the entire Artemis wine portfolio.
Jean-Marie Guffens left Flanders in 1976 with his wife Maine and headed to Burgundy. Following studies in viticulture and winemaking, they bought a few plots in the Maconnais to make a wine of their own. These vines from Pierreclos are the foundation of Domaine Guffens-Heynen, with Jean-Marie slowly purchasing further plots across the region that champion less lauded vineyards that lie south of the Cote de Beaune.
Stephen Browett first visited Kumeu River Winery - and met winemaker Michael Brajkovich - in January 1990 on a visit to Auckland. He’d been tipped off about a new Chardonnay producer (first vintage 1985) by Barry Phillips who had bought the 1987 for the wine list of the legendary White Horse Inn at Chilgrove. After tasting the 1989 vintage from barrel he placed an order - Farr Vintners has shipped every vintage since then.